What is MACD indicator: how to use momentum to trade crypto

Contrary to popular belief, crypto trading isn't easy. Far from being a set-and-forget affair, the fast-paced price action can seem overwhelming if you're not used to the volatility associated with the crypto markets. Thankfully, that's where technical analysis (TA) comes in. As a powerful toolset that employs the use of various types of trading indicators, TA arms you with the information needed to analyze price movements and identify potential trading opportunities.

One of the most popular technical indicators among momentum traders is the Moving Average Convergence Divergence (MACD) indicator. As one of the fundamental momentum-based trading indicators that can help you identify potential trends and spot potential reversals with instances of convergence and divergence, MACD is the go-to indicator that gets crypto traders familiarized with momentum trading.

Interested in finding out more? From learning how to use MACD to understanding its strengths and weaknesses, here's everything you need to know about incorporating the MACD indicator into your trading strategy.

TL;DR

  • MACD is a momentum indicator that helps identify trends and gauge their strength through the MACD line, signal line, and histogram.

  • MACD's strengths lie in being easy to use, visually clear, and helpful for spotting trends and momentum shifts.

  • As a lagging indicator, MACD can generate false signals and lag behind price movements.

  • When using MACD, it's key to look for crossovers, divergences, and zero-line crossings to spot potential trends.

  • For advanced MACD usage, keep an eye out for hidden divergences, where prices go against the MACD's momentum.

Demystifying TA and why we need technical indicators

Before diving into the specifics of MACD, let's take a step back and understand why technical indicators are so valuable in the first place. Unlike fundamental analysis, which focuses on a project's perceived underlying value, technical analysis examines historical price charts and trading volume to identify patterns and predict future price movements. While they can't predict trading success since it's a combination of various factors, the helpfulness of technical indicators can significantly improve your odds of making trading gains by providing valuable insights into what could lie ahead for the market.

There are numerous technical indicators available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Some popular examples include:

Of the various technical indicators in a crypto trader's arsenal, the MACD indicator stands out because it combines elements of both trend-following and momentum indicators. This makes it a valuable tool for short-term crypto traders looking to execute a swing trade.

What is MACD?

Developed by Gerald Appel in the 1970s, the MACD indicator is a momentum oscillator that helps crypto traders identify potential trend changes and gauge the strength of those trends. It consists of an MACD line, a signal line, and a histogram that provides a visual representation of the difference between both lines. From highlighting existing trends to pointing out potential reversals, analyzing the MACD's components may reveal valuable insights into the market's momentum.

Uncovering the components of MACD

In brief, the MACD indicator consists of three key elements:

  • MACD line: Also known as DIF, this line represents the difference between the 12-period and 26-period EMAs of an asset's price. EMAs give more weight to recent price data, making the MACD line more responsive to short-term price movements.

  • Signal line: As a nine-period EMA of the MACD line itself, the signal line effectively smooths out the MACD line's fluctuations and provides a clearer picture of the overall trend. It's sometimes also referred to as DEA.

  • MACD histogram: To tie the MACD indicator together, the MACD histogram offers a visual representation of the difference between the MACD line and the signal line by representing the difference between them as bars below the price chart. The size and direction of these bars indicate the strength of the momentum behind the price movement, with taller bars indicating stronger momentum in the direction of the MACD line.

How to calculate the MACD line

One part that involves some calculation is the indicator's MACD line. It follows the following formula:

MACD line = DIF = 12-period EMA - 26-period EMA

If the MACD line is positive, it suggests bullish momentum. As the 12-period EMA is higher than the 26-period EMA, this indicates that recent prices are generally higher than prices in the past few weeks.

Conversely, a negative MACD line suggests bearish momentum. Since the 12-period EMA is lower than the 26-period EMA, this hints that recent prices are generally lower than prices in the past few weeks.

How to read and interpret MACD signals

Now that you understand what the MACD indicator is made up of and the minor calculations involved, let's now uncover the different signals that MACD can send:

  • MACD crossovers: When the MACD line crosses above the signal line, it can indicate a potential upward trend. Conversely, a crossover below the signal line might suggest a downward trend.

  • MACD divergences: On occasion, the price movement and the MACD lines diverge. For example, the price might be making new highs, but the MACD isn't keeping pace with these highs. This could be a sign of weakening momentum in the uptrend. The opposite instance where prices fall despite a rising MACD may suggest a potential reversal in a downtrend.

  • Zero-line crossings: When the MACD line crosses above or below the zero line, it can indicate a shift in momentum. A move above zero suggests increasing bullish momentum, while a move below zero suggests increasing bearish momentum.

As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't make trades based on the signals of a single trading indicator. While crossovers and divergences can suggest potential trend changes, it's crucial to combine them with other technical analysis and consider the broader market context before making crypto trading decisions.

Pros and cons of using MACD

Now that you're aware of the interpretations of MACD and its various components, let's move on to understanding the pros and cons of the MACD indicator. By knowing these strengths and limitations, you can leverage the strengths of MACD without getting caught in MACD's blind spots.

Pros

Cons

Identify trends

False signals

Gauge momentum

Lagging indicator

Clear visual representation

Not a guarantee

Easy to use

Strengths of the MACD indicator

  • Identify trends: The MACD excels at highlighting potential trends. Look for crossovers of the MACD line above the signal line during uptrends and vice versa for downtrends. Then, follow up on these signals by checking with existing market trends.

  • Gauge momentum: The MACD histogram is your window into momentum. A rising histogram indicates strengthening momentum, while a falling histogram suggests weakening momentum. Use this to assess the strength of a potential trend or identify potential turning points.

  • Clear visual representation: For the visually inclined, the MACD histogram provides a clear visual indication of the difference between the MACD line and the signal line, making it easy for crypto traders to identify shifts in momentum.

  • Easy to use: Most charting platforms calculate the MACD automatically, making it a user-friendly tool for beginners.

Limitations of the MACD indicator

  • False signals: The MACD can generate false signals, especially in choppy markets. That's why it's key to always complement the MACD indicator's use with other trading indicators while considering the broader market trend.

  • Lagging indicator: Unlike leading indicators, MACD is based on moving averages, which inherently lag behind price movements. This means the MACD might confirm a trend after it's already started, potentially leading to missed entry or exit points.

  • Not a guarantee: Like all other trading indicators, MACD doesn't predict future price movements with certainty. It simply reflects the relationship between short-term and long-term price averages.

Using the MACD indicator in your crypto trading strategy

BTC MACD visual
Source: OKX

Let's now go through a trade using the MACD indicator as part of our crypto trading strategy. In this example, after bouncing off the lows of $56,555, Bitcoin surged and began trading in the range of $60,000 to $64,000. At the same time, we can see the MACD line crossing above the zero line. The histogram also aligns with this bullish sentiment as it transitions from red to green with increasingly rising bars. This suggests that Bitcoin was enjoying bullish momentum as BTC prices recovered to the upside after the dip.

As it consolidates between the $60,000 and $64,000 range, this acts as the confirmation that gives us the confidence to enter a long position on BTC. For risk mitigation purposes, it's crucial to also set stop-loss orders at the support level of $60,000 to mitigate risk in case the price movement breaks below the range that BTC is trading in.

After a few days of consolidation, a bullish breakout occurs as BTC prices soar beyond $62,000 and successfully surpass the resistance level of $64,000. This price movement further reinforces the validity of the initial trade signal from the MACD indicator. Here, we have a few options when it comes to closing our long position:

  • Take profit: Since Bitcoin is now effectively trading outside of the previously established range thanks to its bullish breakout, you could choose to sell your BTC holdings to lock in your trading gains.

  • Trailing stop-loss: Alternatively, you may consider a trailing stop-loss strategy. This allows you to potentially capture further gains while still managing risk in case of a sudden price reversal.

Advanced MACD indicator usage: hidden MACD divergences

While trading crypto, you may come across instances when crypto prices are creating higher lows despite the MACD histogram portraying a lower low. This is one example of a hidden bullish divergence, since the price action contradicts the weakening momentum suggested by the MACD histogram. This specific type of divergence can be a powerful signal for a potential trend reversal, particularly when it occurs at support levels or after a downtrend. To fully capitalize on such hidden bullish and bearish divergences, it's key to first understand the discrepancy.

In a hidden bullish divergence, the price action portrays higher lows while the MACD histogram prints lower lows. Conversely, in a hidden bearish divergence, the opposite rings true as the cryptocurrency is trading at lower lows while the histogram displays higher lows. These inconsistencies highlight a potential conflict between price and momentum and suggest weakening momentum amid underlying buying or selling pressure. When combined with other trading indicators, it may reveal other forms of confirmation which validate your trend reversal suspicions.

Final words and next steps

The MACD indicator is a powerful tool for understanding momentum in the crypto market. By analyzing the MACD line, signal line, and histogram, you can gain valuable insights into potential trends and identify areas of strong or weakening momentum. However, it's crucial to remember that the MACD is just one piece of the puzzle. That's why it's key to combine the MACD indicator with other technical indicators and fundamental analysis for a comprehensive trading strategy. By managing your risk and approaching crypto trading with a healthy dose of skepticism, such indicators can be valuable assets in your crypto trading toolkit, now that you've learned how to use MACD.

Keen to give crypto trading a try with this newfound trading knowledge? Check out our many spot pairs and perpetuals to get started today. Alternatively, you can also read up on our guides to the best indicators for crypto trading to further expand on your available crypto trading knowledge.

FAQ

What are the best settings for the MACD indicator?

The default MACD settings (12-period EMA, 26-period EMA, 9-period signal line) are a good starting point. However, you can experiment with different settings to find what works best for your trading style and the specific cryptocurrency you're analyzing.

Can I use the MACD indicator for day trading?

Yes, the MACD can be helpful for day trading as it highlights short-term momentum shifts. However, due to potential lagging and false signals, it's even more crucial to combine it with other indicators and focus on strict risk management in day trading.

What other indicators work well with the MACD?

Support and resistance levels along with volume analysis can provide further confirmation of the MACD's signals.

Is the MACD a guaranteed way to make money in crypto?

No indicator can guarantee gains when trading in the volatile crypto market. Rather, MACD is a tool that helps you identify potential trends and momentum that'll increase your odds of trading success.

Does MACD predict trends?

MACD is a lagging indicator, meaning it reacts to past price movements. While it can't predict future trends with certainty, it can help identify potential trend shifts based on momentum.

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